Who are the real Godfathers of ISIS?

A feeding frenzy has broken out among conspiracy theorists and pro-Assad circles in the wake of the release of a document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency dated August 2012. This was obtained by conservative lobby group, Judicial Watch, seeking ammunition for their campaign against Hilary Clinton in connection with the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi. They have made little use of it but others have pounced on it with great enthusiasm.
The Washington Blog ran with the headline “Newly-Declassified U.S. Government Documents: The West Supported the Creation of ISIS” while regular Stop the War (UK) contributor Matt Carr flourished the banner “How the US-helped ISIS Carve its caliphate in Blood across Iraq and Syria” and Guardian journalist Seumas Milne joined in with “Now the Truth emerges: how the US fuelled the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq,” Most recently the normally level-headed US left journal Jacobin has picked up on the theme.
Before looking at what this text actually says it is worth noting some of its features: it is an “Information Report” with a circulation list of some 17 other agencies, including various military departments, the State Department, the FBI, and Homeland Security; corresponding to this wide circulation it has only a mid-grade “Secret” security classification. (This probably explains why large parts of it read like something from Iraq for Dummies.) So it’s unlikely to be a document which contains any major policy secrets.

Its principal concern is with the security of Iraq, but it deals with Syria in the context of the interconnection of the two. It is written in a rather staccato style and contains grammatical and other errors that suggest it was hastily put together. It has also been extensively redacted leaving a rather fragmented text. As such it needs a considerable amount of interpretation ­ and is open to a considerable amount of hyperbole.

The conspiracy construction of the text

The conspiracy reading of the document rests on an alleged “smoking gun” assembled from two paragraphs:

7B … On the other hand opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor) adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces in addition to neighboring Turkish borders. Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts. (my emphasis)

8C. If the situation unravels, there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor) and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran.) (my emphasis)

By linking the “Western countries, the Gulf States and Turkey” of the first paragraph to the “supporting powers to the opposition” of the second, The Washington Blog feels able to conclude that the declassified DIA documents show that the U.S. and the West supported ISIS at its inception … as a way to isolate the Syrian government”. Milne asserts that it “uncannily predicts – and effectively welcomes – the prospect of a ‘Salafist principality’ in Eastern Syria and an al-Qaida controlled Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.”

There are three obvious problems with this reading. First, the United States is not mentioned in these passages – and as Juan Cole has pointed out, a document written by one US agency for the benefit of other agencies is hardly likely to lump the US government into a catch-all category like “western powers”. Second, Section 8, of which the second paragraph is a part, is a list of warnings about threats to Iraqi security. It isn’t advocating the creation of a “Salafist principality” (whatever that might be) but warning of it as a potential factor in the “deterioration of the situation” with “dire consequences on the Iraq situation.” Given that the document’s principal concern is Iraqi security it could not logically be endorsing anything cast in such terms.

What it does seems to be doing is suggesting that other actors ­ including some unnamed “western powers” might sponsor this “Salafist principality” for the reasons suggested.

The third problem with the Conspiratorial reading is that it assumes that this “Salafist principality” is to be identified with ISIS. But one of the few virtues of this document is that it differentiates between different currents in the Syrian opposition – The Syrian Free Army (sic), the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, and Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). So this warning relates to a Salafist not an al-Qaeda project (al Qaeda’s possible strategies are dealt with separately in the subsequent paragraph: “ISI could also declare an Islamic state through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria”) And of course no such “Salafist principality” ever came to pass.

So what are we left with? A document that warns about some of the dangers that it foresees for Iraqi security resulting from the policies of Turkey, the Gulf states and unnamed western powers. To clarify what is going on here we need to do a little more reading –both of the document and about the context in which it was written.

After its warning of the threat of a “Salafist principality” the document continues:

This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command centre of the temporary government.

When this was being written in 2012 there was a vigorous debate going on among international supporters of the Syrian opposition over what action they should take to contain the Syrian regime’s attacks on civilian populations. Turkey championed the idea of a No Fly or Safe Zone, France and Britain indicated they might support such a proposal (probably as a threat to pressure Asad), the US State Department was equivocating, and the US military was opposed. The main proposal under discussion was a limited protected zone adjacent to the Turkish border

There you have your alliance of “western powers” (France and Britain) with Turkey and the Gulf states. And there you have the connection to Northeast Syria –  a protected zone very similar to the area that Turkey continues to propose.

Why such a development should be described in the strange language of “a Salafist principality” I don’t know for sure.  Probably it reflected the unease among the US military (remember this is written by a Defence Department agency) about the implications of such an opposition controlled area for the security of Iraq, which in 2012 was in an acute crisis in the wake of the US troop withdrawal, with the Maliki government threatened by internal discord and a resurgent Islamic State in Iraq (making utterly absurd the notion that the US would  be supporting ISIS-to-be in this period.)

This is the only consistent reading of the DIA report, explaining its preoccupation with the Syrian-Iraq border (even the simple capture of a border post by the FSA is described as “a serious and dangerous threat”, given that view, the prospect of a “Salafist principality” must have been seen as the dawn of the apocalypse.)

Looking at  the Assessment the right way up

Our Conspiratorial readers haven’t finished with the DIA document yet however. Abandoning their usual scepticism about the pronouncements of US intelligence agencies, they now treat the DIA as a fount of wisdom. Pouncing on para 3B – “The salafist (sic), the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria”­ – they pass over its differentiation of opposition currents, roll them into one “extremist” mass, and whoop “there aren’t any moderate rebels in Syria”.

The problem here is that this part of the Report is nonsense. The Muslim Brotherhood had no presence in the armed opposition in 2012 – indeed it was late in joining the 2011 protests because it was in negotations with the Syrian government when they broke out. By 2012 it had acquired a role in the political opposition (a handful of members on the Syrian National Council); and it was involved in financing and smuggling arms supplies for the FSA and providing humanitarian aid –  but a ”driving force” they have never been. When it comes to AQI the document provides its own refutation: it says “AQI conducted a number of operations in several Syrian cities under the name of Jaish al Nusra (sic) (Victorious army) one of its affiliates”. What one makes of an “intelligence” report that gets the name of Jabhat al-Nusra wrong, I don’t know, but its facts are right – AQI operated in Syria through Jabhat al Nusra, and as of August 2012 their activities consisted of a dozen bombs planted in Syrian cities. While Nusra began to appear as a component of the armed opposition later in the year, it was a long way from being a “driving force”. As for the “Salafists”, the document is at least getting warm here: Islamist and Salafist groups were began to emerge among the armed opposition in connection with the battle for Aleppo, although a clear Islamist pole did not appear in Aleppo until November, and this was neither entirely Salafist nor a majority among the armed opposition nor firmly committed to one political perspective.

Symptomatic Errors ?

What is interesting here is not so much the errors in the Report’s Syria intelligence (there are many more which I will discuss in a later post) but what they might signify. Presumably the authors of this report drew on the current intelligence evaluations available to them. If this is the sort of picture the US intelligence establishment had of Syria –­ that the armed opposition was dominated by a nexus of Salafists, Muslim brothers, and al-Qaeda – then it does much to explain US policy in this period, particularly its insistence on tightly monitoring arms flows, effectively starving the FSA moderates, and thereby turning its intelligence failure into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The real Godfathers of ISIS

Significantly, the Conspirators show no interest in certain parts of the document – the contents of paras 3A and 6C: “AQI trained in Syria and then infiltrated into Iraq …in Previous years a majority of AQI fighters entered Iraq primarily via the Syrian border.”

Now here we have a real smoking gun – acknowledgement that the formative years of ISIS were spent in regime-controlled Syria and that their subsequent florescence was overseen by Syrian intelligence. If we want to find find ISIS’s real Godfathers that is where we should be looking.


18 thoughts on “Who are the real Godfathers of ISIS?”

    1. Have you read Nafeez Ahmed’s piece and George “I’ll have the Fukushime spritzer please” Monbiot’s slam of Nafeez. Nafeez always does his homework. I don’t the chap does anything else.

      1. Hi Fiona – yes I did read Nafeez Ahmads’s piece, but I didn’t think his discussion of the DIA document added anything new and I wasn’t prepared to get involved with all the other stuff. I wasn’t aware of his row with the Guardian/Monbiot – thanks for the heads up. I generally try to keep my distance from conspiracy stuff – I consider it more of a mental disorder than a school of analysis (although I must confess to occasional trips to Voltaire Net for light entertainment.) In my experience once you dip your toe into an argument with a Conspirators you sink to waist level and don’t have much time left for a life. But bright people like Ahmed can serve as a foil to keep you on your toes and are often useful for references, even if they misunderstand/distort them.

  1. Fantastic work magpie.

    There are a couple of other points that could also be made here. First, all the “redacted” parts indicates where the names of a source or sources are being protected. This the claim of a Salafist state backed by “supporting powers” would be the assessment of a source who gave the “information” to US defense officials in Iraq, not necessarily the assessment of the DIA or Pentagon. Thin of Hersch’s unknown “source” who he relied on for the crap that Assad didn’t comb East Ghouta with sarin.

    Second, I think Gilbert Achcar’s assessment, which he shared on a discussion list and indicated I was free to share it, is very good – here in full:

    the claim of a Salafist state backed by “supporting powers” is likely to be the assessment of that source, who gave the information to a US defense official or officials in Iraq. It is not necessarily the assessment of the Department of Defense or others in the Obama Administration in 2012.

    Took a look at the document (which I hadn’t initially):
    1. Much surprised that an “intelligence” report would in the most banal way describe the geography and ethnography (THE POPULATION LIVING ON THE BORDER HAS A SOCIAL-TRIBAL STYLE, WHICH IS BOUND BY STRONG TRIBAL AND FAMILIAL MARITAL TIES) of the border area in a region that was under US occupation for nine years, and from which the US had completed withdrawal less than one year earlier. Reads as if the report is based on a loose talk by an “informant” and written by a novice.

    2. The document formulates a *HYPOTHESIS*:

    Since the *hypothesis* is predicated on the view that “Western countries” are preparing a repetition of the Libyan scenario, it is clear that the “informant” is closer to the opposite side (most probably, the Iraqi government) than to those to whom he (certainly not a she in the context!) attributes this intention.

    3. It is against the backdrop of this much biased and flawed hypothesis-making that one should read the “sensational” statement:

    3. The assumption that this is an Iraqi government source is confirmed by statements like this one: THE IRAQI BORDER GUARD FORCES ARE FACING A BORDER WITH SYRIA THAT IS NOT GUARDED BY OFFICIAL ELEMENTS WHICH PRESENTS A DANGEROUS AND SERIOUS THREAT.

    Actually the whole document reads very clearly like one coming from a source from within the Iraqi government, or close to it. Basing “revelations” on this is like taking a “secret” report by a source close to the Syrian regime as a proof of what the Syrian opposition had in mind. No surprise that it is “NOT FINALLY EVALUATED INTELLIGENCE”. Its is actually just worthless rubbish of the kind the files of the “intelligence” services are full of.

    1. Hi Michael – Thanks for your comments and the info re Gilbert Achar’s comments which I hadn’t seen. I’ve done a bit more work on the Redactions and the Codes which identify the reasons for them. Doesn’t add anything startling:the larger redactions obviously contain substantial material that may have sensitive info and identification of sources; the smaller ones are probably just the latter. The codes give us a little additional info – most statements are redacted because they are linked to “intelligence activities” (probably the CIA – but that leaves open who their sources were) or to”foreign relations” (info from embassies and their sources. There’s one chunk from “Foreign governments” but that’s entirely redacted so don’t know how it fits in. Some is probably satellite data.
      I don’t think the section on the borders is from the Iraqis because its wrong (the FSA had taken only one of 3 border posts) – but it could be the Iraqis exaggerating the problem.
      Over the years I’ve learned to take the bureaucratic-micropolitical dimension into account along with the macropolitical. My take on this is as follows: this is the work of a couple of junior analysts tasked with compiling a fairly low level information report for wide circulation. They knew very little about Syria (Jaish al-Nusra, for god’s sake!) so they collated whatever data they could round up – CIA reports, embassy reports, stuff from some library research – or maybe remebered from college days (probably the source of the banal material) and threw it togethe.Its got so many mistakes (maybe some a result of the redactions.)
      I admit my suggestion that it mirrors the US intelligence (or maybe DIA) consensus of 2012 is speculative. But I don’t know why Gilbert dismisses it. It is clear from the Ghouta chemical weapons aftermath that there was a block of the intelligence community deeply unhappy over US strategy and in particular the failure to foreground the role of “Al-Qaeda”. This could be an early expression of that – remember that Gen Dempsey raised the issue of “extremists” taking advantage of any US intervention at the time.

  2. Terrific piece. But your comment on Jacobin being usually level-headed? I’ve found its articles had all the depth of a Sophomore term paper. I’ve given up bothering with it.

  3. Charles Lister has an interpretation that contradicts this writers opinion.

    Lister implicates US led command centers in loosely controlling all the Syrian opposition.


    Syria and Iraq are a swamp of mischief meandering towards the hegemony ambitions of the “Greater Israel”
    project which thrives in the US empire project which is hosted by the global “money trick” project.

    1. The Lister piece is a useful antidote to supporters of the Syrian opposition who believe that the West has thrown in its lot with the Assad Crime Family in order to establish some kind of Pax Iranica.

      But Brooks substitutes his own conspiracy theory about the Israelis pulling the strings here. The real source of ISIS and the other extremist groups lies in the virulent reaction of the Iraqi Sunni majority to the pro-Shia central government in Iraq and its refusal to broker a compromise with the Sunnis, and the Syrian regime, which has unleashed a wave of atrocities against the Syrian people and have driven the Sunnis into the arms of the extremists. It’s all out in the open.

      The West has now to balance its opening to the Islamic Republic of Iran with assurances to its old allies among the Sunni/Wahhabi Arab reactionary regimes. Hence its recent alliance with al-Nusra. Hence its alliance with the anti-Houthi forces in Yemen. And the rest of the really, really ill-advised policies in the regime.

      1. Thanks for your comment, Evan, which I largely agree with. But there is no western “alliance” with Nusra (the US was bombing them 3 months ago). Lister indicates that the Operations Room differentiates between the “vetted” groups who it actively supports, and the Islamist groups with whom it has “encouraged a closer cooperation”. But I suspect their attitude towards Nusra is one of toleration rather than encouragement – they have not been able to convince either those they support, or those who they need to ally with to be militarily effective, to dump Nusra. So rather than lose all leverage over the situation they have accepted it as a fact of life.
        Lister’s great merit as an analyst is that he understands the complexities and nuances of the different political currents in the armed opposition. As he points out “Despite the improved cooperation on the battlefield, Syrians still remain deeply suspicious of Jabhat al-Nusra’s objectives … and U.S.-backed factions still engage warily with Islamists.” These alliances are dictated by military necessity and are straight from the playbook of military strategy (look at the range of alliances the western poers relied on in WWII).

    2. I see that a number of people are claiming Lister’s article as a corroboration of the claims about the US and ISIS. But that is nonsense: there is no mention of ISIS in Lister’s article (and the DIA memo dates from 2012 whereas Lister is discussing the current situation). This is just another example of the “methodology” which I exposed in my piece: it rests on conflating “ISIS” with the broad spectrum of Islamist groups. In fact these groups have been ISIS’s principal opponents in Syria, as I point out.

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